Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who allegedly had an affair with Donald Trump shortly after the birth of his son Barron, has now broken her contractually mandated silence on the tryst, somehow revealing more than anyone likely wanted to know and nothing we didn’t already. I suspect that no one who cast their vote for Trump would have seriously doubted, if asked, that something like this was part of his past — it isn’t as though he ever paid anything more than the most perfunctory lip service to personal virtue. But clarity and detail add a dimension to the situation that assumption lacks, and those among Trump’s base who consider themselves concerned with public morality are now faced with an uncomfortable reality.
Evangelical Christians, who have long been among the most vocal critics of public vice — Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell all aired strident critiques of President Bill Clinton during his years in office — are in a particularly tense position. On the one hand, churchgoing white evangelicals are among Trump’s most loyal supporters. On the other, there’s simply no way to square the way the president lives with the cultural vision these Christians seem to share.
One could always say nothing when faced with a lose-lose proposition. But evangelicals have instead come to Trump’s defense. Trump was promised “a mulligan” by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Evangelicals believe in the grace principle; they’re willing to allow him grace,” said David Brody, co-author of the unlikely book “The Faith of Donald Trump .” So much for a temporary, strategic bargain exchanging reluctant support for Supreme Court justices with the same evangelical zeal for morality in public life. Evangelicals are not simply offering Trump votes but embracing him fully. Many more anonymous evangelicals have intimated the same position in polls: According to one recent survey, while evangelical Christians briefly withdrew their approval from the president following the initial revelation of his affair with Daniels, their approval rates are already back up, in a strange showing of spiritual amnesia.
This has brought about all the usual accusations religious people encounter all the time: that faith is a font of hypocrisy, that all principles are negotiable for the right price, that rich-enough men can get away with anything, and shame on the women they get away with. Commentators have advised evangelicals to think about the sort of trade they’re making by letting Trump off easy: “Evangelicals could wind up losing the overall fight for moral authority over the country and the world,” Eugene Scott warned, presciently, in The Post this year. Michael Gerson likewise predicted that “close ties to Trump will eventually be disastrous to causes that evangelicals care about” and that such easy apologia poses a grave threat to the “reputation of faith itself.”
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have identified this convenient display of clemency as “cheap grace” — “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,” the extension of “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Forgetting, in other words, without the difficult business of forgiving; a kind of loveless, self-interested charity.
Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace is a helpful concept because it illuminates a particular risk evangelicals are taking in their ongoing courtship with Trump: neither a risk to their political aspirations nor to the Christian religion itself, which has endured worse company in any case, but to their own souls. French novelist Paul Bourget observed that “one must live the way one thinks, or end up thinking the way one has lived.” It’s difficult for people to hold to contrary standards on those two counts. One either takes the Christian notion of forgiveness seriously — with all its accompanying expectations of repentance, contrition and accountability — or one doesn’t. Evangelicals who aren’t willing to hold Trump accountable for the way he has lived are themselves choosing a particular way of living, one which, with time, may dissolve whatever misgivings they may still maintain, somewhere deep inside.
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